Cave rescue boys end stay at Buddist temple

Members of the Thai football team rescued after almost three weeks in a cave pray during a ceremony marking the completion of serving as novice Buddhist monks (Sakchai Lalit/AP) Credit: AP/Press Association Images

Eleven young boys who spent almost three weeks trapped in a cave in northern Thailand have completed their time as novice Buddist monks.

About 300 people gathered for the ceremony on a rainy morning that saw the boys leave temple life to return to their families. Those present gave alms – flowers, food and money – as a gesture of their religious devotion.

The July 25 ordination of 11 boys of the Wild Boars football team along with their 25-year-old coach was especially dedicated to a former Thai navy Seal, Saman Gunan, who died while diving during a volunteer mission to supply the cave with oxygen tanks essential to a successful rescue.

A 12th boy did not go through the religious ritual because he is not Buddhist.

At the temple near Thailand’s mountainous border with Burma, the boys and their coach sat barefooted in a large pavilion in orange robes. The adults sitting behind them wore white.

With heads bowed, they prayed, fidgeted and occasionally yawned as monks chanted sacred texts. They then placed new monks’ robes on a table in front of a large photo of Saman.

Afterwards, the boys changed into white shirts and blue trousers. Coach Ekapol “Ake” Chanthawong remained in his Buddhist robe, as he has committed to an extended period in the monkhood.

Although they will be giving up their Buddhist robes, it is likely that the boys will retain some of the solitude of temple life, as the government has discouraged for the time being any interviews with them, wielding the threat of legal action under child protection laws.

While there has been some criticism that the government wants to control the narrative of the boys’ ordeal to exploit for political purposes – Thailand’s military rulers are seeking to booster their popularity ahead of a possible election next year – psychologists agree the boys may be vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder. Both their physical and mental health has been judged fine.

The boys and their coach entered the cave on June 23 for a quick, casual trek, but flooding quickly blocked the exit and they had to retreat deeper inside.

Heavy rains raised water levels further and thwarted the initial searches, before two British divers on July 2 found the group huddled on a dry patch of ground, safe but hungry.

The boys took part in a ceremony to mark the end of their stay in the Buddist temple Credit: Sakchai Lalit/AP

They were extricated from the cave in an intricate operation involving an international team of divers over three days beginning on July 8.

The epic event is being commemorated with construction of a museum, expected to open within six months, along with a statue of Saman.

Saman, who is considered a national hero, was cremated in a royally sponsored funeral and had his ashes scattered in the Mekong River.